Run, rabbit, run: Barbara Vernon interview

`Bunnykins' is the most enduring design to have graced Royal Doulton china. Maggie Parham meets its creator, Barbara Vernon, and discovers why she has never received a penny in royalties

I am now in my 90th year. It's high time I went `upstairs'," says Sister Barbara Vernon with a distinctly youthful smile. She is spending the afternoon out of the convent infirmary, where she lives, and is sitting in a light, comfortable sitting-room looking out across Sussex fields.

Things have changed since the early Thirties when Sister Barbara first entered the convent. Visitors spoke to the nuns through a fine grille, designed to prevent both parties looking one another full in the face.

Such things were normal in those days, but it must, none the less, have been a painful experience for parents to visit their enclosed daughters for the first time. Perhaps it was partly a desire that the convent should not entirely possess his daughter that led her father, Cuthbert Bailey, chairman of Royal Doulton, to ask her a favour in 1934. A new line in nursery china was needed, and Cuthbert Bailey invited Barbara to design what was to become the "Bunnykins" range. He had recognised in her, since she was a child, a talent for drawing, and he knew that she loved animals, especially rabbits: "I watch them still from my bedroom window in the early morning." Her Reverend Mother, however, was discouraging about the venture: "She said she didn't want all her sisters starting their own `little things', and that I should keep very quiet about this."

So she drew and painted very late at night, by candlelight - for the convent in those days had no electricity - alone in her cell. Reverend Mother was unimpressed. With regrettable lack of foresight, she insisted that the community should not receive a penny in royalties from Doulton. But, outside the convent, Bunnykins was an instant and enormous success.

Finally, in 1950, Sister Barbara felt she had done enough. Under a succession of other artists, however, Bunnykins has continued in production to this day: the only Royal Doulton range to have endured so long. The original pieces, signed "Barbara Vernon", have become keenly sought collectors' items. But while the other nuns drink tea from Bunnykins mugs, Sister Barbara sips instant coffee from a plain mug.

"Medicine Time", 1937

The clear, crisp-lined water-colours Barbara Vernon sent home to her father were full of wit and minute observation and, perhaps, a slight homesickness for the cosiness of family life. She painted rabbits cooking, picnicking, fishing, dancing, kissing under the mistletoe. The father rabbits, bespectacled and pipe-smoking, were often based on her own father: one design for a breakfast mug shows a large rabbit hauling on his braces in the morning, just as Cuthbert Bailey had done. The mothers she dressed in blue, "in honour of Our Lady".

"Netting a cricket", 1937

Cuthbert Bailey knew that Barbara had a particular sympathy for small children, "I've always loved them," she says. "One of the most beautiful things in the world, for me, is the sight of a baby, still too young to speak, squirming with pleasure when he sees someone that he loves." And it was she who insisted, remembering her younger siblings struggling with their porridge, that there should be a picture at the bottom of each Bunnykins cereal bowl, to help children to finish their food.

"Proposal", 1937

Hot from the kiln, new designs were delivered straight to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at the Palace, and Bunnykins china was soon on practically every nursery breakfast and tea table, not only in Britain but as far away as Australia and Japan. Sister Barbara was under constant pressure to produce new paintings: "Couldn't I try some ducks?" she asked Doulton, when Bunnykins had been running for several years. No, the answer came back, what the children wanted were more rabbits.

Original watercolour for "Wedding", 1937

One of seven children, Barbara Vernon had a succession of governesses, but never a drawing teacher. Of her talent, she says: "My father wouldn't allow me to have lessons or anything like that. He always said, `If you try to teach a little talent, you snuff it out. If you leave it alone, it will grow.'"

Sister Barbara Vernon

There was little time available to Barbara (pictured in 1929, far left, and on her 80th birthday, left) for private work: the nuns, in those days, ran a school, and, at the same time as observing the rigorous disciplines of monastic life, Sister Barbara was teaching six history lessons a day. But her devotion to her father was such that she could not have turned down his request: "I adored him," she says. "I would have done anything he asked." n

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